SAMMAMISH, Wash. (AP) — When Fred Couples was struggling to stay near par in the first round, the cheers he heard were mostly from friends and family out to exult the Seattle native.
On Saturday, the hometown boy gave everyone at Sahalee Country Club a reason to roar.
“Today I didn’t hear many family because it was loud and so much fun,” Couples said.
Couples shot a bogey-free 5-under 65 on Saturday, surging into a share of the U.S. Senior Open lead with Bernhard Langer with a round left. Feeding off the raucous hometown crowd, Couples made five birdies and posted the lowest score of the week.
A week after winning the Senior British Open at Carnoustie, Langer shot 68 on Saturday, posting his third straight round in the 60s.
Couples and Langer were five shots clear of Chien Soon Lu and Tom Kite, giving Sunday a match play feel with a little Ryder Cup thrown in.
“I’m sure there are many, many people rooting for him but I’ve heard a few Germans out there and I might have my own 12 people cheering for me or whatever, who knows,” Langer joked.
Normally reserved, Couples got into the crescendo of sound as his round progressed. When he holed his bunker shot on the sixth to save par, Couples simply flicked his wrist with a little wave. By the time he dropped an 8-foot downhill putt on the 16th, Couples added a subtle fist pump and grin as he walked to the 17th tee.
The whole time galleries six- to eight-deep wedged between Sahalee’s massive trees to get a glimpse at the round Couples was giving to his hometown. Now they get to see if the local kid who grew up learning the game at Jefferson Park on Seattle’s Beacon Hill can win his first U.S. Golf Association championship 20 miles to the east.
“I’m in a great position to win in my hometown,” Couples said. “That’s probably not going to happen again, so I don’t think that’s going to make me more nervous than trying to win the U.S. Senior Open than I think it is, but I’ll let you know on the first tee tomorrow.”
Couples’ round was bogey-free and his best score since shooting a 63 in the first round of a Champions Tour event in late April. His 31 on the front nine could have gone lower, if not for missing a short birdie putt at the fourth.
He made birdies at Nos. 2, 5, 7 and 9, nearly holing his second shot on the seventh, leading playing partner Tom Watson to question the gallery, “That’s a gimmie, isn’t it?”
But the most important hole was the sixth where Couples appeared headed to at least a bogey, but made a spectacular par. His tee shot flared right and tucked near some overhanging tree limbs. His second caught one of the tree limbs, advancing only 70 yards, and his third was punched under another tree and into a bunker fronting the right side of the green.
Fortunate to have a little green to work with, Couples flopped the bunker shot and watched it roll in the cup for a par, sending a massive roar through the course. The 31 tied the lowest nine-hole score in the first three rounds, matched only by Lu’s front nine Saturday.
Couples added par saves on the back at Nos. 15 and 18, sandwiched around an 8-foot downhill birdie putt at the 16th. The score shocked other players, who thought Sahalee played just as tough as the first two rounds.
“The greens were microscopically softer today. I think somebody went out there and spit on the greens a little bit,” Kite joked. “They were a little softer today than they had been but I mean the pin placements are unbelievable.”
Couples needed his amazing round just to stay even with Langer. Trying to become the first player to win back-to-back Champions Tour majors since 2003, Langer shot his third straight round in the 60s. His streak of 20 holes without a bogey was snapped at the 12th, but rebounded with a 20-foot birdie at No. 18 to get back even with Couples.
Lu shot a 68, and Kite had a 69. Peter Senior (68), Michael Allen (71), Tommy Armour III (72) and John Cook (72) were 1 over. A charge from the back of the field seems unlikely, considering Couples’ 65 is the lowest score of the week.
“If we shoot even par or 1 or 2 under it’s going to be very hard for anyone to get there,” Langer said.
While Couples was making his charge and eliciting waves of cheers through the trees of Sahalee, plenty of other contenders stumbled.
Playing with Couples, Watson was 10 shots worse, shooting a 75. J.R. Roth, in the final group with Langer, also shot 75. John Cook was 3 under for the tournament early in his round, then finished with a 2-over 72.
Cook still believes there’s a chance for those well back if the leaders stumble.
“(It) couldn’t be a better scenario for the tournament and for the area. That doesn’t mean we can’t go out and shoot 65 or ‘6 and steal one,” Cook said. “They might get wrapped up in that whole thing, and next thing you know somebody from behind when nobody is paying attention. It’s happened before, it could certainly happen here.”